By Jacques Tocatlian.
Spiders, Véronique and other nuisance.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
I opened my eyes. The room was dark. It was not my room. The street lights projected a ghostly silhouette onto the window. As I moved in my bed, the silhouette turned and spoke. I recognized Brigitte’s voice: “Are you alright, Jacques?”
“Is that you, Brigitte ? Where are we ? What time is it?”
“ We are in Nairobi, darling ! It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
“ In Nairobi ? ” I asked, wondering for a moment if I was in the middle of a dream.
Brigitte sat on the edge of the bed and reminded me that we had just flown in from Paris the previous evening. We were in the New Stanley Hotel in downtown Nairobi.
“We are in Africa, Jacques. In the cradle of Humanity !”
It all came back to me: it was our twentieth wedding anniversary. I had asked Brigitte to accompany me for my three-day mission in Nairobi to be followed by a week’s vacation, including a safari to Lake Nakuru, Masai Mara and Amboseli.
I remember, we were in 1983; Brigitte was 43 and I was 48. It was the first time she had accompanied me on a mission since I had joined Unesco and I had promised myself to give her a memorable vacation. In many ways it did turn out to be memorable…
“Why are you not sleeping, Brigitte ?” I asked.
“Because I am worried. Like a fool, I forgot all my medicine in Paris. What a stupid thing to do!”
Brigitte, like most French people, took lots of medicines. Her sister Liliane once said that both she and Brigitte had lost their pharmaceutical virginity very early in life. Brigitte had felt depressed lately and the doctor had given her an antidepressant of the pre-Prozac age. As a result, she had gained weight and her mouth was as dry as sand. But her mood had become brighter and her spiky temper had tapered off. Her doctor had strongly recommended not to stop taking that medicine abruptly lest she would endure serious side effects.
So our stay in Kenya started by taking a tour of the Nairobi pharmacies and seeing a doctor. The latter recommended a different medication, since he was not familiar with the particular French brand Brigitte was referring to. A different medication which, of course, Brigitte refused to take.
On the way back to the hotel we were caught in total traffic anarchy. Nothing moved. The taxi driver was in a talkative mood and gave us a lecture on Nairobi traffic problems. He said that since a shrewd Lebanese entrepreneur had imported those light scooters you could see everywhere, most Kenyans abandoned the bicycle for the scooter. Now, those noisy machines, which can be driven without any particular training, were thronging all over Nairobi
Brigitte and I looked around and watched all these scooters milling around. Whole families traveled on these scooters. Father, mother, two or three children, not to mention everything they could carry on their heads. You could also see some ladies in their colorful dresses, driving these scooters with an unequaled sense of balance, their dresses floating like sails on a boat. There were also large numbers of ostentatiously decorated cars that made the Detroit design of the fifties look like models of elegance and tasteful moderation.
At one point, we caught a scene that made us laugh heartedly. In front of us was a family on two scooters. On the first one, the father driving with a four or five year old son behind him, followed by the mother, on the second scooter, with a baby bundled on her back and, on the back seat, the eldest daughter with a basket of fruit on her head. When they decided to turn, the driver extended his right hand to signal a right turn. Automatically his son extended his hand, followed by the mother and the daughter. It seemed to us that even the baby on his mother’s back stretched his right hand. It was a wondrous sight.
Hearing us laugh, the driver told us that the previous week he had heard that a man on a scooter had been hit by a car when, without giving a signal, he decided to turn into the front yard of his house. When scolded by the police, the scooter driver was shocked and said, “Officer, this is my own house! Do I have to ask anyone’s permission to turn into my own front yard?”
We laughed but, looking at my watch, I was getting nervous. I asked the taxi driver if he could try a different way since It was terribly embarrassing to be late for the very first gathering organized for us. I should never have asked.
The taxi driver took an abrupt left turn and, hooting his horn, tried to break the sound barrier. It seemed to us that he was heading in the wrong direction. He said that he would circle the city and take us to the hotel from its other end. For some reason there was only one safety belt for the two backseats. Brigitte and I sat tightly next to each other with that one belt strapped over our bodies, joined like Siamese twins. I kept telling the driver that the appointment was not all that important. He would not listen.
We were in a car designed for war with a four-wheel drive and tremendous torque and booster-rocket horsepower. The sensation of personal supremacy was obviously intoxicating for the driver. Stop signs became suggestions rather than law. Brigitte closed her eyes, prayed and thought of her precious tranquilizers that had been left behind in Paris.
Somehow, we reached the hotel in one piece and rushed into the meeting room. It was an informal gathering of all the Kenyans who had benefited from some form of Unesco support, such as fellowships, study grants, invitation to international congresses, the services of visiting consultants or experts. The gathering was meant as a tribute to Unesco.
They took turns to explain, with dignity and humility, what Unesco’s support had meant to them and, in some cases, how it had changed their lives. They spoke in simple, succinct but very moving terms. I felt proud and particularly happy that my wife could listen to such accounts. After the meeting she told me that she understood more fully what Unesco was actually doing in the field and why I was so dedicated to its mission. I was suddenly invaded by a warm feeling of satisfaction.
Shortly thereafter, I left for my technical meetings and Brigitte joined a group for an afternoon visit of the Nairobi National Park. In this park, only a few kilometers from the city center, one can see specimens of virtually all of Kenya’s big game.
When we went to bed that night, Brigitte sounded exhilarated. She had seen and learned a lot of interesting things and wanted to talk about them. She spoke with great enthusiasm. Africans, she thought, were easy-going and friendly towards foreigners and very tolerant of any social errors they might make. With a few exceptions, however, such as public nudity, open display of anger, vocal criticism of their country and public demonstration of affection. Great emphasis is placed on pleasantries and hand-shakes. Apparently, Africans are proud and touchy. It is very important to preserve a person’s dignity. In no case should an African be blamed in front of others. It is very difficult for them to accept open criticism.
“Have you learned all of this at the Nairobi National Park ?” I asked in disbelief.
She giggled and said that she had learned those things from a charming Italian who was on the tour.
“While chatting with your Italian, did you see any game ?” I asked
“Oh, yes plenty,” she replied “but speaking with ‘my’ Italian I mentioned that I had left my medicines in Paris and he suggested that I should go to a Healer instead. He knows of a good one in Nairobi with great supernatural powers who would make all my psychological distress and anxiety disappear. He said that he would do his best to ensure my well-being. He offered to take me to the Healer tomorrow and I have accepted.”
I do not know if Brigitte had intentionally meant to tickle my jealousy, but I was annoyed. For the next half hour I tried to change her mind. I marshaled all sorts of arguments, with no result. My attitude gradually changed from mild suspicion to utter jealousy. She wanted the Healer and, come hell or high water she was determined to go. In any case, she said that my fears were unfounded. I was much too conservative and obviously ignorant of the matter since I seemed to confuse healing with witchcraft. She was seeing a Healer not a Sorcerer! And she was not going to let the Healer bewitch her.
“What about your Marcello Mastroiani ?” I asked.
“Have no fear. He is no Mastroiani! Besides you should know that unaccompanied women in Africa face sexual harassment. I’ll be much safer this way.”
Unable to change her mind, I gave her a last reproachful look and turned off the light. I worried in silence for a long while. In the middle of the night, Brigitte screamed at the top of her voice. I jumped, but for a few seconds, again I did not know where I was, nor what was going on. When I managed to turn on the light, Brigitte was standing on the bed in hysterics, pale as a sheet.
“ There is a huge spider under the bed ! There is a huge spider !” she kept repeating.
“It must have been a nightmare, Brigitte.”
“No.No,” she kept insisting “It is a huge, black spider and it is under the bed.”
I went on my knees, with a slipper in my hand, on a spider-safari but could not see any. Then Brigitte thought that the spider was under the sheets. I had to undo the bed, while she was perched on top of the desk. I looked under every piece of furniture, in the bathroom, in the closets, under the rugs, everywhere. No spider.
Then Brigitte said that under no circumstances would she sleep in this room. She thought that the least I could do was ask for another one. It was two thirty in the morning and I was not going to make a fool of myself. We argued some more. I finally said that in Nairobi there were no rooms guaranteed to be spiderless and that it was a real pity she had forgotten to bring her tranquilizers.
At that point she burst into tears and sobbed for a long while saying that I was callous and cruel and that this was no way to celebrate a wedding anniversary. I tried my best to calm her down. When we turned off the light it was almost four. My spider-hunting safari had exhausted me.
For many years, whenever we recalled this scene we burst out laughing. But that night there was no laughing matter. It was simply tragic.
I spent the next day working while Brigitte went to the Healer and visited the National Museum and the Snake Park. When we met at the hotel early in the evening she was still tense – not totally healed. I did not inquire about the Healer nor the Italian. She asked to be excused for the evening; she did not really care to come to the dinner party we had been invited to at the home of Dr. Mabungu, a University Professor. I did not insist since in Africa, wives are often invited but not always accompany their husbands to such small, unofficial dinner parties.
In effect, when I reached Dr. Mabungu’s house I noticed there were six or seven gentlemen and one French lady by the name of Véronique, the wife of Dr. Maina. I had met Véronique on my previous visits to Kenya, for she seemed to attend every cocktail and dinner party in Nairobi. Her conversation was lively and her personality striking. She had lived in Kenya for the last fifteen years or so, but always gave the impression of not being adjusted to the African way of life. She was excessive. As I remember, she wanted to fly, she wanted to sing, to act, to travel, to hunt, to do nothing, to do everything. She struck me as a huge volcano of emotions, vulnerable and lacking focus. Yet everyone agreed that Véronique was smart and intriguingly charming.
At Véronique’s invitation I sat next to her, but did not manage to strike a conversation with her for quite a while because the group was dominated by Mr. Wanga who demanded undivided attention.
Mr. Wanga was talking about the problems of Africa. He spoke calmly but looked angry. He said, “Burdened with climatic changes, deprivation and disease and, now, conflict, coups, genocides and corruption – the pernicious legacy of 400 years of foreign domination – Africa finds it difficult to emerge.”
Véronique remarked that Europe could not continue to be blamed for every African problem after all these years. To which Mr. Wanga said, “Mrs Maina ! European slave traders shipped possibly as many as 13 million Africans into bondage overseas. Consider what effect just the six years of World War II had on the consciousness of the developed world and, then, imagine the effect that four centuries of slavery had on the entire social and cultural ethos of an undeveloped continent.”
After a brief silence, Véronique asked, “Does this explain and justify the corruption of many of our African leaders ?”
“The legacy of 400 years of slavery and exploitation does not justify, but certainly explains, the situation.” replied Mr. Wanga. He went on to say that Western civilization had failed to provide mankind with a viable framework for social harmony and moral and spiritual fulfillment. Western civilization had created more problems of great complexity for Africa than those it had solved. “Westernization” he concluded “has damaged the local economic, social and political fabric of African society.”
The servants brought some food and drinks and the conversation, fortunately, moved on to more neutral and safer ground. I thought to myself that it was a good thing that Brigitte had not come. Her views and that of Mr. Wanga differed widely and it would have been difficult to prevent some sparks.
At this point Véronique shifted to French, a language which was probably not shared by others, and whispered, “How long are you staying in Kenya ?”
I explained that at the end of my work in Nairobi I would undertake a safari with my wife. She became very interested and asked many questions concerning the safari, the itinerary, the departure dates, the cost and then added that she desperately needed to talk to me on a private matter of the utmost importance.”
I was startled for I had only occasionally met Véronique at parties and did not feel we had reached the stage of confidential secret-sharing. She added, “I cannot discuss the matter here while my husband is observing me but will get in touch with you soon. Please do not mention this conversation to anyone. Not even to your wife. I count on you. I trust you.”
She moved around to get some food and I remained on the sofa flabbergasted. Silence descended on the gathering as the food received due attention. Dr. Mabungu looked at me with surprise and asked, “Is everything alright, Mr. Dupont ?”
Was everything alright ? Obviously not. That night I could not fall asleep. It was almost three and I was still wondering in my bed what Véronique wanted. Many scenarios went through my mind, one more extravagant than the other. Later when I fell asleep one of these scenarios became a dream and I must have mumbled aloud in my sleep, for Brigitte woke me up asking, “Is everything alright, Jacques ?”
“Oh! Yes,” I said “I was having a nightmare.”
Brigitte wanted to know the subject of my dream. I first said I did not remember. As she insisted, I said I thought I struggled with a huge black spider. To which she replied ironically, “Was the spider’s name Véronique ?”
From that point on I knew that my mission would be hell.
In the morning I showered and shaved. For one reason or another since I had arrived in Nairobi I had not had a single good night’s sleep and that showed on my face. My eyes were puffed, my skin gray and I felt tense. I kissed Brigitte goodbye and went down for breakfast.
I had not started my coffee when a lady came and sat at my table. Véronique !
“Listen to me, Jacques, you have to help me. I am desperate. I have to get out of this country. I must go back to France. My husband won’t let me. The French Embassy won’t help me. I have no one to turn to. You are my only hope. I am drifting away without anchor, at the mercy of winds and waves…”
She started crying. It seemed to me that the whole New Stanley Hotel was looking at us. I said, “Please Veronique, I beg you to control yourself.” And in order to shift the conversation into a different subject, I added, “Do you have children ?” She replied that she did not have any.
I asked her if she wanted coffee. She composed herself and continued, while everyone within listening range seemed attentive, “My husband is very nice but I cannot take this kind of life any longer. In Africa, loyalty to one’s family takes precedence over personal needs. In our house we have had, for the past fifteen years, visiting cousins, aunts and uncles staying with us. When one goes another arrives. It is like Grand Central Station in New York or la Gare St Lazare in Paris! Here, there is no concept of privacy. African friends are generous; they give you time and effort. But they expect you to give them your whole life in return. A couple has no private life. There is no personal life for the individual. I live for and owe everything to my extended family. I seem to be fog-bound and adrift. I have ceased to exist. I have lost all my inner resources”
“What do you mean by ‘extended’ family?” I asked.
She smiled for the first time and said, “That reminds me of a story. When we first came to live in Nairobi, after we were married in France, we hired a young man, named Micah, to help around the house. Micah was perfect but every two or three weeks he would request a day off because of the passing away of a grandmother, aunt, uncle or cousin. After a while I realized that he must have had at least six grandmothers, countless aunts and uncles and a whole tribe of cousins. When I accused him of taking days off under false pretenses, he explained that, in his society, any middle aged or elderly person was called by sheer respect grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle according to their age bracket. Younger ones were called brothers, sisters or cousins depending on the degree of friendship or nearness of kinship. In Africa that constitutes the ‘extended family.’ Micah explained that they shared with members of the ‘extended family’ food, money, time, happiness and sorrow. The one who has more gives to whoever has less. At the time, I thought that such a bond of solidarity was wonderful. I envied Micah for belonging to such an altruistic society. Now, after fifteen years, I think it is a nightmare.”
I had listened with patience and finished my breakfast. I said, “ I am sorry, Véronique, but I have to go. What I do not fully grasp is why you waited fifteen years to realize that you cannot adjust to this kind of life ?”
She said, “I have asked my husband lately what we would do after retirement since we have not been able to save any money so far, with all the extended family on our shoulders. He said, not to worry, that someone will certainly look after us. I cannot stand the idea. I just cannot.”
“Véronique,” I said, standing up and slowly walking towards the hotel exit, “I sympathize, but what do you expect me to do ?”
“You can help me to get out of here. I’ll tell you how.” Having spoken these words, she walked out of the hotel. As I was following her through the revolving door I saw Brigitte at the reception counter staring in our direction. I was certain she had seen us. I rushed to the closing session of the meeting. My heart was pounding all the way.
That evening I found a note from Brigitte saying that she was visiting the Railway Museum, the Kenyatta Conference Center and shop for souvenirs at the City Market and the Maasai Market on Moi avenue. Not to worry if she was late in the evening since she was planning to have a drink at the Inter-Continental Hotel with her Italian friend. “In any case,” she concluded “I am sure you will not feel lonely, having many interesting things to do, yourself.”
It was obvious from the tone of the note that Brigitte had seen me going out of the hotel with Véronique and had imagined all sorts of things. It was also obvious that, deprived of antidepressants, she was not herself. I sat in the lobby, procrastinating and wondering what to do next. I read the note over and over again and decided that Brigitte was probably hoping to see me at the Inter-Continental Hotel, which was a few blocks away from our own on Uhuru Highway. So I decided to join her.
When I entered the Inter-Continental Hotel my heart was pounding again and my mouth was dry. I walked through a grand atrium with tropical plants and exotic flowers interspersed among the furniture. I walked, looking right and left. The place was full of businessmen who discussed, bargained, signed papers, or telephoned.
At the bar the light was so dim that I needed a flashlight to look for Brigitte. The only person in evidence was the barman, a real artist in action, surrounded by a forest of colorful bottles. He had the cure for my dry mouth, but I did not yield to temptation and continued my search.
Everywhere you could see a diligent army of well-trained, smiling staff, moving around, serving, helping, and making customers feel comfortable.
The lounges were lush. As an international civil servant on a Unesco salary and per diem, I did not exactly have the profile of the successful and generously funded executive who filled the place. But no one seemed to notice my presence
All at a sudden I heard a beautiful baritone voice calling across the lounge loudly enough to wake the dead, “Signor Dupont. Signor Dupont.” I turned around and recognized the chubby silhouette of Dottore Giovanni Spaghettini.
We fell into each other’s arms and hugged like two old friends. We had not met since our London meeting, seven years earlier. Giovanni had not changed much, he had put on a couple of kilos around the waist. He was now more ‘canelloni’ than ‘spaghettini.’ He was as lively and enthusiastic as ever… Allegro, vivace, fortissimo … con agitazione.
He said, “Come and have a drink with us. Let me first introduce you to a charming French lady.”
As I turned around, there was Brigitte, utterly surprised, with a crimson face and eyes wide open in total amazement. She could not believe that her Italian escort and I were friends.
“Bonjour !” I said to her joyfully, “I got your message and came to look for you.”
Now it was Giovanni’s turn to look bewildered. He asked, “Do you know each other ?”
“Well, slightly” I said “we have been married for twenty years !”
A few seconds later the three of us roared with laughter, Giovanni was shaking like a jelly, while Brigitte was going into fits. It was an incongruous situation.
It was strange that so far they had known each other only by first names. Brigitte looked surprised to discover that Giovanni’s last name was Spaghettini. Every subject became a source of laughter. When we talked about the Healer, the spider or Marcello Mastroiani, we chuckled and choked. The situation was ludicrous and put us in an exhilarating mood for hours. A serious argument not being possible during this mild euphoria, Brigitte and I gradually resumed a normal attitude towards each other.
We had several cocktails. Since drinking on an empty stomach does funny things to the brain, I took advantage of the prevailing sense of buoyancy and mentioned, en passant, having met during breakfast a French lady I knew from previous missions. Brigitte did not react and I felt relieved.
Giovanni insisted on inviting us to dinner so I waived the waiter to pay for the drinks. The bill was timidly slipped inside a leather folder. It was not meant for a modest budget and my credit card trembled with anxiety. Giovanni said, “ Do not tip. I have already done so. Tipping in advance improves the level of service. With early and judicious tipping I always manage to be loved and remembered. Ha.Ha.”
We moved to the dining room. Giovanni looked at the menu and beamed. From our table you could take a glance at the kitchen through the swinging doors, every time a waiter came in or out. There was an agitated army of cooks, helpers and waiters and you could enjoy the sound of smashing dishes.
Brigitte and I made our choice from a selection of international dishes which looked safe, but studied the local specialties on the menu, out of shear academic interest. Giovanni ventured into deep Africa. The Sommelier steered us towards the precious jewels of the wine list.
When Giovanni asked the waiter what meat did they usually eat in Africa. He said, with a smile, “We kill and eat everything that moves.” To which Giovanni replied, “ Then I had better stand still !”
The food was very nicely presented, but Brigitte and I did not find a hint of flavor in our unimaginative choices, whereas Giovanni seemed in ecstasy. The wine was exquisite, stories funny, observations meaningful, pauses relaxing, and the cognac smooth. Dinner stretched into two hours – a vacation from life’s nonsense.
Before parting I suggested to Giovanni that he should join the safari. He liked the idea, but had to stay in Nairobi another full day to finish his work at UNEP – the United Nations Environmental Program. He promised to call Rome to see if he could extend his stay and perhaps join us later for part of the visits, perhaps Maasai Mara and Amboseli. He would thus miss only the first stop at Lake Nakuru.
At the hotel we packed since we were scheduled to leave early next morning. We slept through a rather short night and the following morning we took the Tour minibus in front of the hotel. The guide said that we would make several stops at the main hotels in Nairobi to pick up other passengers.
It was good to feel that for the next few days there were to be no meetings, no serious discussions, no appointments, no report writing, no telephone messages, no television, no news. It was just enjoyable to be alive and discover the animal kingdom. Nothing else mattered. I thought Brigitte was again herself and I felt happy.
At each Nairobi main hotel one or two tourists boarded the minibus. Brigitte and I carefully observed each one. We were curious to see with whom we would share the following exciting days. Most of them looked plentifully provided for, if one could judge from their outfits. We had not bought any particular clothes designed to make us look like African hunters and, unsure of ourselves, we wondered if we were properly dressed for the occasion. The lady from the Meridien Court Hotel took one good look at us and shattered our self-confidence in no time.
At the Hilton, a business man and his wife, with hand-stitched crocodile luggage, came on the bus. They had made an obvious effort to outsmart everyone else. The opulent, middle aged matron from the Oriental Palace Hotel was, in our view, more appropriately dressed for Mardi-gras than for a safari. At the last stop in front of the Grand Regency Hotel a party of four came up, beaming with anticipation and bursts of laughter that were audible miles away, visibly pleased with the attention they were attracting. At their sight Brigitte and I talked about Mogambo, King Solomon’s Mines and similar old movies. The bus had now left the city and was spreading towards Nakuru.
The road was bumpy and hard on one’s back, but when we reached the lake and saw thousands of flamingos and an incredible variety of birds, we forgot the hardship of the trip. Like most of the other Rift Valley lakes, Lake Nakuru is a shallow soda lake. As the sun dipped and the shadows grew longer, the scenery became overpoweringly beautiful.
The bus stopped at a distance from the lake because of road conditions and, in order to enjoy a better view, we were invited to walk to the lake. The ground was muddy and the closer we approached the lake shore the muddier it got. The sophisticated ladies of the group sank in the mud up to their knees and their elegance gradually vanished. By the time they returned to the bus, the sophisticated ladies, suffering from several mosquito bites, had lost all trace of sophistication. They were scraping, scratching, itching, cursing. I looked at the lady from the Meridien Court Hotel and knew that she would go into hysterics at any moment.
We drove about a kilometer into the park and stopped at the Njoro Camp Site. It was a lovely grassy site under acacia trees, but the accommodation was far from matching that of the Hilton and the Meridien and, as a matter of fact, did not correspond to the description given by the Travel Agency in Nairobi. Our fellow tourists started a litany of complaints, grumblings and grievances. At the sight of the pit toilets, the lady from the Meridien Hotel almost fainted.
A sign warned us to beware of vervet monkeys and chimpanzees who come into the tents at night and steal everything. Seeing Brigitte’s amazement at the monkeys’ intelligence and skillfulness, the guide told us a funny story.
He said that a few years ago a lady had decided to leave the camp and take a walk by herself into the park – which, by the way, is absolutely forbidden. She walked for a while and enjoyed nature when, all at a sudden, she saw a bunch of chimpanzees walking in line, one behind the other, coming in her direction. She got very scared, but decided to act unperturbed and continue her way, as if nothing had happened. As the platoon of chimpanzees was getting closer and closer, she felt more and more apprehensive, but continued to act naturally. When the chimpanzees arrived at her level, the first one – probably the chief – extended his right arm for a hand-shake. They shook hands and having done so continued on their respective ways. The lady rushed back to the lodge and passed out.
It struck us as being terribly funny and we giggled all through dinner and right up to sleeping time, while many of the other members of the party looked terribly disappointed and continued to complain.
The accommodation at the Masai Mara National Reserve was of a much better quality. The lodge we stayed in was comfortable and provided with all the basic facilities. The tentacles of civilization had reached Masai Mara where one could find, among other things, croissants, Coca-Cola, Air-conditioning, Gin and Tonic, effective plumbing and Perrier. We never heard a complaint. Besides, the sun is known to be a great tranquilizer and the day slowly passed in a haze of well-being. It was a perfect day for the pool, the hammock and a good book.
The following day we drove through the park which is the Kenyan section of the wild and beautiful Serenguety Plain. We saw and photographed an astonishing amount of wildlife. We drove for hours in the open rolling grassland dotted with flat-topped acacia trees. The scene was breathtaking. Our bourgeois passengers forgot about their exclusive safari-outfits and paid attention only to nature. It was an inspiring experience.
The early evening was spent in contemplation of an awe-inspiring sunset kindling the skies into a myriad of fiery colors. We drove back in silence. When we alighted from the car, we were moving slowly, somewhat subdued by a long, fulfilling ride under the scorching sun.
In the lodge we looked for Giovanni Spaghettini, but did not see any sign of him. I was told that there was no public transportation to the park and, therefore, we no longer expected to see him in Masai Mara.
The next day, we drove to the Amboseli National Park. On the way, the guide told us that in Amboseli we would see a lot of wildlife, huge herds of elephants and, with a little bit of luck, even a black rhino. From that park, looking south, one can admire the Mount Kilimanjaro – an experience which leaves a lasting impression. “This is Masai land,” he said “ arid, interspersed with swamps and springs and belts of acacia forest. You will love it.”
At the lodge we found, waiting for us, Giovanni and Véronique. I was thunder-struck and speechless. At first Brigitte paid attention only to Giovanni , but later noticed my strange attitude and asked, “Have you lost your tongue ?”
At that point Giovanni said, “Let me introduce you to Mrs. Véronique Maina. We came separately by taxi from Nairobi and met here in the lounge and became acquainted”
After Brigitte said, with a trembling voice, that she remembered having already seen Véronique at the New Stanley Hotel, I could only acknowledge knowing her and indignantly asked her, “What are you doing here ?”
She replied, “I came to see you to settle some urgent matters.”
Brigitte flew into a rage and left. I ran after her into the room and tried to explain things. She was fuming and would not let me talk. She was in a great state of excitement and was looking for some object to throw at me. Fortunately, the rooms at the lodge were as bare as a monk’s cell, reduced to the essential chattels.
I screamed at the top of my voice, “Brigitte, for heaven’s sake shut up and listen to me.”
In twenty years of marriage we had never had such a scene and I had never screamed at her this way. I caught her by surprise; she stopped and listened. I told her why Véronique had come to the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi and why she was here.
With an infuriated look she asked, “How do you explain, Jacques, that the night before she came to see you at the hotel, you mentioned her name in your sleep? Remember ?”
“I had already seen her at Dr. Mabungu’s dinner” I replied, “but the best thing to do now – as a matter of fact, the only thing to do – is for you to go and talk to Véronique and find out for yourself what exactly she wants. Ask her anything you want and clarify things for you and for me. And come back only when you are totally satisfied, because I refuse to drag back to Paris this misunderstanding between us. And, in the meantime, please send Giovanni up with a bottle of whisky ”
Giovanni and I drank Vat 69 and talked for hours. It was two in the morning and the lodge was dead quiet. I was worried. Then, Brigitte and Véronique appeared on the scene, holding hands like two old friends. Their eyes were red and puffed; they must have been crying profusely.
Véronique said, “I came to say goodbye. I’ll be going back to my family in Nairobi tomorrow with a group which is leaving early in the morning. I am sorry to have caused you so much trouble. I am glad to have met Brigitte. You are indeed lucky to have such an exceptional wife. Please, say hello to Paris for me.”
She turned around and left. Shortly thereafter Giovanni left. Brigitte then said with a smile, “ I apologize for having been mistrustful. It is all over now, Jacques. Don’t ask me how it happened. Don’t ask me what happened. Please, never ask me. It has been a memorable trip. Happy anniversary.”
In the morning I could not get out of bed. I figured that Giovanni had done all the talking and I had done all the drinking. The Vat 69 had solidified in my head into a block of steel and lead. Brigitte and Giovanni went to visit Amboseli with the group and Véronique went back to Nairobi. I stayed in bed wondering what Brigitte said to Véronique. I wondered but, to this day, I have never found out. I have never found out and have never seen the snows of Kilimanjaro.
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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